Saturday, August 12, 2017

Otto Maurer And His Magic Shop

Who was Otto Maurer? I think I first heard the name in connection to the sleight known as the Back Palm. Later, I came upon the name Otto Maurer again, while researching the Coin Casket, or what Maurer called, "The Miraculous Golden Box." But who was this guy Otto Maurer?

He was born Otto Maurer in Gemeisheim Germany on October 28th 1846. He immigrated with his family to America at the age of 5 according to The Perennial Mystics by James Hagy.  MagicPedia says that Maurer was a graduate of a German University and came from Berlin. This information may come from an unidentified clipping in one of Houdini's scrapbooks. I have not yet been able to track down the most accurate information.

In 1872, Otto Maurer opened his magic shop on No 321 Bowery in NY. I believe it was simply a tinsmith shop at first, but because so many magicians came to him asking to have their props repaired, he shifted to a magic shop. In his catalog he makes claims to being a performer as well as builder and even offered lessons in magic. But T. Nelson Downs in a 1924 letter said that Maurer was definitely NOT a sleight of hand performer. That doesn't mean he wasn't a magician, he could have simply used apparatus magic. And speaking of T Nelson Downs, there is a great story that is related in numerous sources about Downs first visit to New York City. Downs stopped into Otto Maurer's shop and told him that he was in town performing, not only that,  he was making $100 a week. Maurer said to Downs, "No magician has ever been paid that kind of money, GET OUT of my shop!" At least one source claims the amount was $150.

Though he issued a catalog with an illustration of a grand storefront on the cover, the Otto Maurer Magic Shop was not a storefront at all, but rather it was a basement location where he built most everything.

An interesting story from W.W. Durbin which appeared in the Dec 1935 edition of The Linking Ring, tells how he (Durbin) ordered a number of things from Maurer and some of it arrived, some of it didn't, some took a while before they arrived. In addition, some of the items were clearly salvaged from (non magic) store bought purchases and then welded or attached in various ways and then gimmicked to produce the desired magic effect. From the description that Durbin gives, it sounds as if Maurer had his own methods on some items as well. And indeed, Otto Maurer did claim to use the very latest methods for his apparatus. For example, the Vanishing Birdcage that Maurer sold was unlike the DeKolta cage that was all the rage at the time. Instead it used a rather unconventional method and a very solid cage.

Otto Maurer covered the issue of potential delayed props on the first page of his catalog. Here is how it reads,  "It being almost impossible to keep a full supply of everything on hand, some articles selling more rapidly than others, all orders cannot be filled from stock. All goods not on hand must necessarily be manufactured after the order has been received, and consequently such orders require time to fill..." It goes on, but the point is, Maurer was letting potential customers know ahead of time, there might be a delay in ordering if it was an item that needed to be built.

In his book, Adventures in Magic, Henry Ridgely Evans shares the story of how when he was 19 years old me went from Baltimore to NY to find Otto Maurer's Magic Emporium. Despite much searching, he could find no store front, no palace of mystery. Finally, he asked someone who guided him to a set of stairs on the side of a building. Henry Ridgely Evans said, "Imagine my astonishment at finding the Aladdin's palace of enchantment in the cellar of a grimy old tumble-down house. My gorgeous dream was dispelled. His magnificent magical salon was a myth, but his heart was in the right place."

In another issue of the Linking Ring, W.W. Durbin describes what the inside of the shop looked like,
and it was not unlike near every magic shop I've ever seen. Photos adorned one wall. There were display cases with various types of apparatus that took up other areas. Sounds pretty standard magic shop with the exception of it's basement entrance. Despite the apparent lack of a fancy establishment, this did not deter magicians of all kinds from frequenting his shop. And clearly, it had a good reputation because folks like Trewy, T. Nelson Downs, Herrmann, Thurston and Houdini all visited the shop and purchased from the shop.

Otto Maurer's big claim to fame seems to be his learning the back palm from a Mexican gambler. This sleight he later showed to Houdini, Thurston and a host of others who used the underground technique to it's fullest. From what I can gather, Dr. James Elliott also learned the sleight from Maurer, and then developed the more impressive Front and Back Palm version. Though others would make claim to that as well. T. Nelson Downs attributes the effect to Elliott.

In 1890 he changed the name of the shop to The Columbia Magic Trick Manufacturing Company.

In 1899 Otto Maurer began to develop health problems. This issues soon made a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with Cancer. All the money he had saved from his magic shop went into medical bills. He died nearly penniless at the age of 53 at Metropolitan Hospital in NYC on May 15th, 1900. He was survived by a wife, son and a daughter.

Due to his financial situation, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the public area of The Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Queens NY. Magic historian Tom Klem started a campaign last August (2016) to raise money for a gravestone for Otto Maurer. The money was successfully raised and a stone has been placed in the cemetery for magic dealer and magician, Otto Maurer.

For a time his son, Otto Jr. took over the shop and moved it's location. But a few years later sold it to Frank Ducrot. And Ducrot also purchased Hornmann's shop, as well as quite a few other magic shops. Otto Maurer Jr. eventually took a job in the music department at a department store.

Images provided by Tom Klem and posted with his permission. A BIG THANK YOU to Tom Klem for working so hard on the project to get a gravestone for Otto Maurer!!!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Carnegie's TEDx Talk

Finally, my video from the TEDx Foggy Bottom event in April has posted! I think my video must have been the last one edited, lol. I will say, the TEDx folks did a fantastic job editing footage from numerous cameras to give a seamless video of my presentation.

As I stated in the past, I had 8 minutes. In that time I had to present a talk on magic history and do a magic trick. I also had to follow the guidelines on what makes a TEDTalk. Afterall, it was their event, and I surely wanted to present something that worked for their program. My talk rounded out at roughly 12 minutes with no magic trick. So I had to cut away various talking points in order to get my talk down to the allotted time.  The final result, though brief, was fun and concise. They were pleased with my final version and the audience liked it as well. Below is my quick talk on magic history!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Magic of Niagara Falls

Recently, I got to thinking about the famous image of Houdini holding onto a rock at Niagara Falls. As I pondered the drama in that photo (see below), I suddenly began to see all these various connections in the magic world to this beautiful natural treasure of scenic beauty.

However before we can get to the magicians, I need to point out the daredevil who started this whole Niagara Craze. Her name was Annie Edson Taylor and she was born in 1838. At the age of 63 she decided to attempt going over Niagara Falls in a Barrel. She thought it would leave to fame and fortune. On Oct 21st, 1901 Annie made her attempt. And after 20 minutes her barrel was seen bobbing up in down in the water below the falls. She was alive and came out of the barrel unscathed except for a cut on her chin which happened when the lid was being removed from the barrel. Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to go over Niagara Falls and live. She would repeat the stunt a few years later at another falls.

Though she did gain some modicum of fame from her daredevil stunt, it did not really lead to the kind of riches she had hoped for. She died in poverty in 1921.

Annie's success started a fad of going over the Falls in a barrel and many others followed her daring feat. Some were successful and some died in the attempt.
In an odd twist of fate, or coincidence, Harry Houdini showed up to film his movie The Man From Beyond on the very day that Ms. Annie Edson Taylor was being buried. The whole story on that event can be found over at John Cox's site

According to biographer, Milbourne Christopher, Houdini had plans on presenting a spectacular escape at the Falls by being placed into a packing case, sent over the Falls where the crate would smash to pieces on the rocks below and then when it seemed there was no hope for Houdini to be alive, he would mysteriously appear on the shore, to the delight of one and all. But this escape was never presented. The 'stunt' can also be found in Walter Gibson's book, Houdini's Escapes and Magic. Gibson points out that this was an idea, a concept for an escape but it didn't go far beyond the idea phase. I tend to think that given the fact that the stunt had been successfully presented by several other people and that some had died in the process, it would put Houdini more in the realm of copying what someone had already done and I don't think he would have done that, and may be why the 'idea' never went anywhere.

Rather it would seem that Houdini's Niagara Falls adventure begins with the filming of The Man From Beyond. The film had several locations including Lake Placid, NY, Fort Lee, NJ, but the climactic scene with Houdini rescuing the heroine from going over the Falls at Niagara took place at the actual Falls in Ontario. Houdini would be performing some fairly dangerous stunts, like swimming in and against the current to save the damsel in distress. Despite having a safety line attached to him, it was still quite dangerous. I should note, that though Houdini never did the escape as listed in the previous paragraph, we do at least have the film footage of Houdini in Niagara from The Man From Beyond.

Fast forward to June 6, 1968 and Houdini again appears in Niagara Falls Ontario. This time in the form of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. For many years, this Museum would be the place that stored and displayed many of Houdini's famous escapes, including The Water Torture Cell. In 1995 the museum burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. The carcass of the Water Torture Cell was later sent to John Gaughan in California where he amazingly restored the cell.

In 1978, for the filming of a magic documentary, James Randi, the escape artist and famous psychic debunker, escaped from a Straitjacket while hanging over a freezing cold Niagara Falls. It was so cold during taping that Randi wore a ski mask to cover his face. He also wore thermal underwear, and if you watch the footage captured on the documentary Houdini Never Died, you'll see Randi having a bit of trouble getting out of the jacket at the end. No doubt the cold and the extra clothing added to the escapes difficulties.

In 1990, for his 12th annual CBS special titled The Niagara Falls Challenge, David Copperfield would close out a special filled with fantastic magic, with an escape that had him apparently going over the Falls in some sort of metal container strapped to a raft. I didn't feel it was his best closer, but not because the escape was weak. In my opinion what made the whole thing weak was the reveal of Copperfield hanging from a helicopter by a wire. He should have taken a page from Houdini's notebook and appeared on the shore or at least swimming to the shore. Still it added another magic feather in Niagara's cap.

The final magic connection is still there, it's the Greg Frewin Theater, owned and operated by magician, illusionist Greg Frewin. Though he became famous for his incredible Dove Act, Frewin has presented Houdini-like escapes in the past. The most notable escape was a packing crate escape presented on the Champions of Magic over the French Riviera in Monte Carlo.

UPDATE: Wait, hold the presses!!!! I just found out one other connection (sort of). It turns out the Niagara Falls area was the final destination of the proposed VEDA-LAND amusement park. This was the TM Amusement park that Doug Henning left magic to spearhead. Of course, it never happened because Doug died before Vedaland was built. And I have my doubts it ever would have been built. But I'll save that conversation for another time.

In the past 100 years, Niagara Falls has drawn, daredevils going over the falls in barrels, giant rubber balls, large metal cans, there have been daredevils who have walked via tight rope OVER the Falls, and of course, you've read above about the various exploits of the magicians. Perhaps, the most magical thing about this location is simply the breathtaking beauty of Niagara Falls itself.